“New Year, Same Promises: God’s Promise of Ministry”
A Sermon on Matthew 4:12-23 for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A; preached January 22, 2016, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
And Jesus saw two brothers, James and John, in the boat with their father, Zebedee, mending their nets. Jesus called them. Immediately they left the boat, they left their father, and they followed Jesus.
And their father… was pissed(!).
I can imagine that James and John never heard the end of it. Whenever they gathered together with their family at Christmas and Thanksgiving, it would come up. After getting a few drinks in him, Zebedee would mutter in disbelief that his two sons had turned their backs on the family business. He would rail and shout that they would rather follow after a crazy rabbi, begging for food from people with real jobs, sleeping in the homes of strangers, a new bed every night. It wasn’t much better when they called on the phone. Old Zebedee would complain about how his fingers ached from mending the nets by himself. He would moan about how is back was sore from hauling in the fish without anyone to help. He would speak mournfully of what he was supposed to do with the family boat when he was too old to work anymore, now that there was nobody left to put it to use.
It is a hard thing to put down your nets and follow Jesus. It is a hard thing to give up everything to follow a calling. Just the other day, a friend of Adam’s and mine shared her reflection on Zebedee. She shared how she decided to pursue a path different from everyone else in her family. She shared the experience of breaking with the “family business,” of breaking with the expectations of her parents, and setting her own course as she followed her own call. It’s a classic story, I’m sure you know it: a girl grows up in a family of artists, but becomes the black sheep when she decides to become a lawyer.
And if it is hard to go against the expectations that your family has for you, it is also hard to pivot and go against the expectations that you have for you. After all, we all have plans for our lives. We all have visions of what we will do, of the people we will become. To some extent, we all have an idea of the path we will follow through our life. When we hear a call that leads us away from that path, it can be incredibly difficult to let go of those expectations, those visions, those plans that we have for ourselves. It can be terrifying to step off into an unknown direction, on an unknown path, following after a voice calling to us.
I remember the day in my senior year of college when I told my parents that I was going to go to seminary. It was January, we’d been back from Christmas break for a couple of weeks, and my parents had stopped by while they were in the area doing some other errands. As we sat in my dorm room, my mom started asking about my application process for grad school. You see, as some of you know, I was a computer science major, and my plan for quite some time had been to go on to grad school, in order to teach at the college level. But my mom, she commented that she hadn’t heard me talking about that for a little while. “Well,” I said, “I’ve decided I’m not going to go to grad school in computer science.” “Oh yeah?” “Yeah, I’m actually applying to go to seminary.” There was a stunned look, and silence as she sat there on the couch. My parents weren’t upset or anything, but for them this had come completely out of the blue. If you’d told them a few years earlier that I was going to head to seminary, they would have said “yeah, right!”
And for me, too, this whole sense of call and responding to it also had, in a way, come out of the blue. I mean, by the time I told my parents this, I’d been wrestling with it for nearly a year, but prior to that, it certainly wasn’t anything I had in mind. In fact, I had even made things like financial decisions based on what I thought I was going to be doing with my life. Oh, don’t worry about it, mom and dad, there’s no need for you to take out parent loans or anything—I’m going into computer science. It’ll be a lot easier for me to pay things off later, with what I’m sure I’ll be making doing that, rather than saddle you with the burden now.
So all of this was surprising, to be honest, and rather unsettling too. But in its own way, it was also an exciting and life-giving time. Learning to let go. Learning to put down the things I had once thought were important. Learning to trust the voice calling to me. When I gave in to the sense of call, and finally made the decision that, “ok, I guess I’ll apply to seminary,” I had a sense of peace within that I hadn’t had in quite a long time—certainly not for any of the preceding year while I had wrestled back and forth. It was like I was seeing the world for the first time, and it was alive with possibility.
And, I imagine you’ll be happy to hear, I do not regret following this path. It has led me to people I would have never met. It has led me to places I would have never traveled, experiences I would have never imagined. And it has led me to a sense of purpose and fulfillment that I would have never found.
That friend of ours who chose the road less traveled and became a lawyer, she would say the same. Though she could not have foreseen it when she first set out to follow the voice that called to her, that law degree led her, in fact, to the church. It led her to working, as a lay person, with clergy and lay people in crisis. It has led her to safeguarding God’s people. It has led her to creating restoration and reconciliation for communities filled with conflict and pain.
In your own lives, you too have had the experience of following a call that led in an unexpected direction. Perhaps it was not the direction your parents and family expected. Perhaps it was not the direction you expected. You too, I imagine, have known the uncertainty, the destabilization, as well as the excitement and exhilaration of charting a new course. And, I’m willing to bet that whatever unexpected places your own calling has led you, that you have not regretted it. I’m willing to bet that you too have found a deeper sense of purpose and fulfillment as you follow the voice of Jesus calling to you, in whatever form that voice has taken for you.
And yet… I don’t know about you, but when I hear Jesus’ call to Simon and Andrew, to James and John, a part of me feels anxious. A part of me feels a familiar sense of dread. Because, after the uncertainty of once before following down a new path, now the rhythms of my life are stable. I am content in the knowledge that I am fulfilling my call. Perhaps you feel the same way too. You are doing good work in your life. You have families to look after, bills to pay, obligations to keep. The thought that Jesus might be calling us again, that Jesus might be calling me or you to put down the new nets we are now tending… it’s unnerving. I want to cry out, “How many times?”
I am afraid that I already know the answer. Because “call” is not something we only see in the rearview mirror. The call of God, the call of Christ to follow, believe it or not, continues to speak into our lives today, no matter how old we are or where we are on the journey. No matter how many times we have followed before, Jesus finds us where we are tending our nets, and calls us to follow anew.
The world is always changing. Things that seem settled rarely are so forever—many of us have been made painfully aware of that, to be honest, by the transition in our country we marked on Friday.
And… the reality is that God is still, and always, present and active in our world. We are called to join Christ in his work in this world, a call that always comes, ever and ever again. That may be, on the one hand, challenging — that we are never done being unsettled and disrupted and changed. And, it also speaks deeply to God’s great trust in us. As Christians, we often say that Jesus shows us the path of reconciliation with our God. But Jesus also gives us a purpose along the way. In good times and in bad, he invites us to lay aside all the gnarly nets, familiar and comfortable as they may be, nets that trap us in their tangled webs and take up all our attention and energy. Lay it aside, follow me, find your purpose yet again today.
Indeed, today may very well be the day that Jesus shows up over there beside Mirror Lake to call out in my direction, “Hey Matt! Come and follow me…” Today may very well be the day that Jesus shows up over there beside Mirror Lake to call out in your direction, “Hey ____ (call out name of a person in the congregation)! Hey ___! Hey ___! Come and follow me…” Just because you hear and follow what seems to be a “call” from God at one moment in life doesn’t mean that the “phone” is never going to “ring” again. And responding to God’s call is not a once-and-for-all proposition. It’s an ongoing opening that God presents to us again and again, each and every day.
Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto God, now and forever. Amen.
 Substantial portions of this sermon are, by permission, excerpted and/or adapted from a sermon draft on this text that was co-written by myself and the Rev. Adam B. Yates of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, East Haddam, Connecticut.